Emmylou Harris headlines Women’s Refugee Commission benefit at Capital One Hall

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Emmylou Harris at Capital One Hall (Part 1)

The Women’s Refugee Commission is presenting a series of concerts next weekend to raise awareness for gender equality and humanitarian efforts around the world.

Emmylou Harris headlines “The Lantern Tour” on Oct. 28 at Capital One Hall in Tysons, Virginia, before hitting the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall in Munhall, Pennsylvania on Oct. 29 and the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, New Jersey on Oct. 30.

“The Women’s Refugee Commission has been working for decades on behalf of refugees, especially women and children,” Harris told WTOP. “We’re hoping to shine a light on the crisis that’s happening with displaced refugees around the world. There are probably over 60 million displaced persons now, which is more than after World War II.”

In addition to the 14-time Grammy-winning Harris, you’ll also hear live performances from Steve Earle, Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Amy Helm, Gaby Moreno and Thao.

“We started doing these in-the-round shows in the last century back in the ’90s on a campaign for a landmine-free world,” Harris said. “It’s a lovely, intimate show where you’re almost in someone’s living room. … You’re hearing the bare bones of the song.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1947, Harris grew up the daughter of a Marine.

“He was in World War II,” Harris said. “When the Korean conflict occurred, he went back in. He was shot down. He had only been there 10 days, so he spent the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. He was listed as missing in action, so we didn’t know if he was dead or alive. I was only 5 at the time, but it was hard on my mother. … We were lucky he came back.”

Back on the home front, Harris discovered folk music as a teenager.

“In high school, I was considered musical, I played in the marching band, and my parents tried to give me piano lessons,” Harris said. “When I discovered the folk music revival that happened in the ’60s, I got my first guitar and wanted to be Joan Baez and learn every three-chord song I could. That was when I got bitten by that bug and never looked back.”

She won a drama scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“I was a drama major,” Harris said. “I really thought I was going to be this great actress, but music quickly took over. I didn’t really ever study music. I would play whenever I could around campus and then eventually quit school and took myself to New York City.”

While waiting tables, she performed at coffee shops on the Greenwich Village folk scene.

“There’s no substitute for having to pay your dues and pay the rent,” Harris said. “As an unknown, you have to get in front of the audience and make them listen to you. You have to really love it, because sometimes you can feel like you’re just treading water. By the time I left New York with my infant daughter in tow, I thought music was not my future.”

After a divorce, she moved back in with her parents in Clarksville, Maryland.

“I went back home to mommy and my father retired,” Harris said. “I started coming back into D.C. with my guitar and playing … in the clubs at Tammany Hall, Clyde’s, The Child Herald, The Assembly, wherever I could. … Washington D.C. was such an extraordinary music town, not the way of New York, Austin, Nashville and L.A., but local music.”

It was at Clyde’s that she met Gram Parsons and recorded two records before he died.

“It was a blow to lose Gram, who was really my mentor and really turned my head toward country music, because before that I was a stone-cold folky and actually didn’t have a very high opinion of country music, which I’m very humbled to say that now,” Harris said. “I didn’t hear the beauty and poetry in country music until I started working with Gram.”

In 1975, Brian Ahern of Reprise Records produced her major label debut, “Pieces of the Sky,” featuring “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” followed by “Elite Hotel,” featuring No. 1 hits with covers of Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams.”

“I might have brought in some people who weren’t into country music before, but I always tried to tip the hat to people that had inspired me like Buck Owens,” Harris said. “If I like a song, I don’t worry about it, I just learn to sing it. … [‘Sweet Dreams’] was a great song. We recorded it live at The Roxy in L.A. as the last hurrah of the ‘hot band’ version.”

In 1978, she recorded arguably her career song with “Two More Bottles of Wine.”

“At that point, I wasn’t really writing, so I was always trying to find songs that other people had written,” Harris said. “Delbert [McClinton], I loved that record of his and we needed an uptempo song, so we just threw it out one night. … Fortunately, I haven’t had to live and die by hit records. My audience will listen to whatever I put out. I don’t have to play hits.”

She followed with the acclaimed album “Blue Kentucky Girl” (1979), featuring “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Beneath Still Waters” and a Grammy-winning title song.

“There was a time where I had gone so far into the country weeds that they didn’t really know how to promote it,” Harris said. “Then it won the Grammy and somehow it was, ‘Oh, okay, this one is good, too.’ I’m not ever going after the hits. For me, it’s just a bunch of songs that I really love that I want to record.”

Through it all, many fans have also enjoyed various duets like “Bluebird Wine.”

“For me, it’s special because it was the first time I heard Rodney Crowell,” Harris said. “I knew immediately that this guy had the right stuff, so that was the beginning of an almost 50-year friendship and the fact that we did two albums together, Rodney Crowell.”

In 2008, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2018, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, she joined Mary Chapin Carpenter to sing “We Shall Overcome” at the Kennedy Center Honors for Joan Baez.

“I felt the weight of the generation on top of me to say all of the accolades that so many of us around the time [felt] when Joan burst upon the world with that glorious voice and all that she has done not just for music for human rights,” Harris said. “I love Mary Chapin Carpenter so much. … Singing with her for Joan Baez is one of the highlights.”

Still, beyond all the accolades, Harris mostly enjoys performing for various social causes, from her annual fundraiser for her dog rescue Bonaparte’s Retreat at The Hamilton to the aforementioned “Lantern Tour” for the Women’s Refugee Commission at Capital One Hall.

“We have a crisis of displaced persons,” Harris said. “We want to raise money, but we also want to raise people’s consciousness and open their hearts and minds to what’s going on around the world. … Of course, we now have Afghanistan and we have it here at our own borders on the Mexican border. This is a very momentous time in world history.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Emmylou Harris at Capital One Hall (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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